Rachel O’Rourke, an art therapist and social activist who has worked in homeless and refugee communities, has always felt the youth and families she’s interacted with were invisible. Her new photo project, on exhibition in the Collins Gallery at Portland’s Central Library until February 23rd, aims to help change that.
“At first people were honestly not interested in having their picture taken,” says O’Rourke of her initial visits to the shelter. “I was actually really worried, I thought, ‘is this whole thing going to be a complete failure?’”
O’Rourke discovered that trust was key. She spent time listening to the personal stories of the families, and invested in a photo booth she could set up inside the shelter, offering printed portraits that families could keep for themselves. For many, it was the first professional photos they had ever had.
O’Rourke’s exhibit features both portraits of children and their families from the shelter, as well as maps documenting the journeys that brought them to east Multnomah County. She calls her subjects, “domestic refugees,” because she believes the term more fairly describes the life experiences that led them to the shelter. “I feel like it takes the blame off of the children, off of the families and places it on the systems that aren’t in place to support these families,” says O’Rourke.
It was important to O’Rourke that the project was a collaborative effort between her and her subjects, “to have the families be in the power position and be able to decide how they were imaged.” She hopes those visiting the exhibition will be able to see themselves in the portraits.
“I think that’s what’s missing in the crisis that we face as a city,” says O’Rourke. “Many people don’t want to really look at the fact that you can be really close to being in a shelter yourself. It could be anyone.”